War: the why, and the how
Dean Esmay has an interesting theory on the bottom-line cause of war. He writes:
I believe that the source for all real wars--not violent outbursts, but wars--is: those who fight believe it is ultimately in their self-interest to fight.... En masse, people fight to the death for something only when they think they have more to gain by killing than by not killing, more to gain by risking death than by accepting the status quo. Everything else is just peripheral.
I think Dean is right about the self-interest part; but I disagree on the "just peripheral" part. The self-interest factor may indeed be a sort of overarcing meta-reason, but it doesn't stand alone, and the "peripherals" are pretty central, IMHO.
Not that Dean is suggesting this--but no one wakes up one morning and says, "You know, it's in my interest to fight a war, so I think I'll start one" (no, not even George W. Bush). There are always other reasons present, and most of the time they include at least one or two of those listed by Dean as the usual suspects: hate, rage, spite, envy, avarice, pride, ethnic tension, and religious tension.
Dean's post brought to mind a related topic, a somewhat controversial idea I've heard of about wars and how they are fought (not the "why" of which Dean speaks," but the "how"). The principle may not hold true for Western countries fighting highly mechanized wars--but there's a body of research that indicates that, at least in third world countries, local wars are fought most often in areas in which there is a surplus of young men, preferably unemployed.
How valid this research is, I don't know; I haven't studied it in any depth. But it makes a certain amount of sense, especially in economically strapped areas such as Africa where there is a great deal of sectarian civil-war strife.
This is not the same thing as saying "poverty causes war." It doesn't. Nor does it cause suicide bombers. But the combination of lack of employment and a surplus of young men provides an especially fertile field for the recruitment of willing participants in a conflict, men who happen to be of just the right age and the right gender, and who have a lot of time on their hands with not too much else going on otherwise that might tie them down.
Here's a discussion of the phenomenon as it relates to civil wars and localized conflicts in particular (and perhaps these are the ones Dean means by the phrase "violent outbursts," which he excludes from his definition of wars):
First of all, it is a common feature of livelihood conflicts that the rank and file of most atrocious militias around the world are filled by large cohorts of young men, who have been subjected to a rapid devaluation of their expectations as a result of loss of family livelihoods, and forced to accept a much more lowly situation in society than they had been led to believe they were entitled to, in their position as men.
In such situations, and if they are unable to find alternative livelihoods, in the cities, or in other sectors than agriculture, young men are extremely easy to mobilize in one or another movement, or even militia - particularly if they are promised land, livelihoods, or even just looting...
Every society is filled with fault lines. In good times they may be relatively unimportant. When times get tough, however, they provide an easy channel to pit one segment of unemployed young men against another, and thus to mobilize them.
If you are unscrupulous enough, it is easy to mobilize an ethnic army of discontented young men - provided they have been subjected to the rapid process of loss of livelihoods. When times are good, young men are not that easily mobilized to commit atrocities against a part of the population in their own country.
A book has been written on a related subject, although I haven't read it and therefore can't vouch for its quality. It's entitled Bare Branches : The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population , written by Valerie M. Hudson, Andrea M. den Boer.
Here's a summary:
...historically, high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence. Most violent crime is committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. Although there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship, these surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society. Governments sometimes respond to this problem by enlisting young surplus males in military campaigns and high-risk public works projects. Countries with high male-to-female ratios also tend to develop authoritarian political systems.
Hudson and den Boer suggest that the sex ratios of many Asian countries, particularly China and India -- which represent almost 40 percent of the world's population -- are being skewed in favor of males on a scale that may be unprecedented in human history. Through offspring sex selection (often in the form of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide), these countries are acquiring a disproportionate number of low-status young adult males, called "bare branches" by the Chinese.
Hudson and den Boer argue that this surplus male population in Asia's largest countries threatens domestic stability and international security. The prospects for peace and democracy are dimmed by the growth of bare branches in China and India, and, they maintain, the sex ratios of these countries will have global implications in the twenty-first century.
If the theory is in fact valid in the first place, I still think there are a few things that might make it less operative in China and India than in some other areas of the world: economic development there means fewer of these males are likely to be unemployed in the future; both countries have a mechanized military--as compared to that of Africa, for example; both countries have stable, ancient, and relatively cohesive cultures that would tend to mitigate the sort of local, civil war type of violence that I believe is most associated with these population imbalances; and both countries seem to be in the process of discouraging the selective abortion of female babies (it is now illegal, although that's not too difficult to circumvent), the practice that had lead to such great imbalance in the first place.
So I'm not at all sure that the Bare Branches premise will pan out, and I certainly hope it won't. But it's food for thought.